When Ely were in FA Cup spotlight

TOMORROW (Friday November 17) marks the 50th anniversary of Ely City s famous FA Cup First Round meeting with Torquay United, a day seen by many to be the proudest in the club s history. Ely lost 6-2, but for the majority of the 4,233 supporters who witne

TOMORROW (Friday November 17) marks the 50th anniversary of Ely City's famous FA Cup First Round meeting with Torquay United, a day seen by many to be the proudest in the club's history.

Ely lost 6-2, but for the majority of the 4,233 supporters who witnessed the first ever visit of a Football League club to Ely's Paradise Ground, defeat had never tasted less bitter.

Football was very different back then, according to Norman South who played in Ely's defence in the match.

He said: "There was no diving and shirt-pulling was unheard of. Teams never had any substitutes and players would never want to come off anyway; if a player got injured they would just get on with it or they would be seen to be letting their team-mates down and if somebody was seriously hurt we would just stick them out on the wing."

Ely City, who then played in the Peterborough League, Premier Division, was, at the time, the smallest club to reach the First Round proper of football's oldest competition, so the match attracted a great deal national media attention.

Bob Pennington wrote in the Daily Express after the match: "Midnight in Ely and chairman Doug Unwin mutters, 'perhaps it was as well we didn't beat Torquay this afternoon'. At that hour I was more than sympathetic to this point of view. The way Ely celebrated scoring two goals against the first League club ever to play on the Paradise Field was, shall we say, uninhibited."

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Torquay, who went into the match in second-place of the Third Division (South), were, for a time, in trouble. Ely went in 3-0 down at half-time but when Frank Oliver pulled a goal back, early in the second period, the crowd, some of which had no prior interest in football, went into a frenzy.

Despite the best efforts of the home side Torquay scored three further goals before The Robins' player-manager George King headed home Ely's second goal in the final minute, to wild celebrations.

Volunteers worked tirelessly to prepare the Paradise Ground for the huge crowd. Terracing was built from railway sleepers along the road touchline and temporary stand was erected from hundreds of beer crates which were borrowed from East Anglian Breweries and local United States Air Force bases. A joke appeared in a cartoon in the Daily Express on the day of the match praising, "the gentlemen who emptied all those bottles to enable Ely FC to build a grandstand of beer crates."

The Robins produced a series of jaw-dropping performances in the run-up to the Torquay match, starting with a 3-2 win at Histon in the Preliminary Round, before defeating Cambridge United 5-2, Cambridge City 1-0, before winning 2-0 in Ely's first ever home match against March Town. This took Ely further in the competition than ever before and 1-0 win over Sudbury Town earned them the right to play, what is to this day, the biggest match in the club's history.

Former treasurer of Ely City and author of One Hundred Years of Ely City Football Club 1885-1985, Sam Lawrence wrote in a programme for a charity match of the famous Ely City `56 team against Norwich City All Stars: "Here was a good Ely team of loyal players with ability who responded well to George King's fine leadership. They really put Ely on the soccer map at that time and their performances really were of a very high order."

Football-fever remained in the city after the Torquay match with the team continuing to draw crowds of well over 1,000. Ely finished the season as runners-up in the Peterborough League Premier Division and winners of the Cranfield Cup, whilst the strong second team were runners-up in the First Division.

Former Ely player Peter Elsden, who was in the crowd at the Torquay match, said: The mid-50's were very memorable ones for Ely City Football Club. I am sure the memories still live on for some of the remaining ex-City players , club officials and past older fans during that time, sadly some are no longer with us to share the memory, but they are not forgotten."

- Much interest has been expressed in holding a reunion of players, supporters and club officials from the Torquay match and it is hoped that this would happen before the end of the year. Anyone one interested in this should contact Adam Lazzari at the Ely Standard on 01353 667831, adam.lazzari@archant.co.uk or by writing to 38 Market Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4LS.